Polar Opposite: Etosha National Park, Namibia

August 7-16, 2013

4 pm: No lions in sight - bright afternoon light at the edge of the pan, Nebrowni waterhole, Etosha National Park, northern Namibia.


Following the usual Iceland to Namibia tourist route (with a 1am departure and a  torturous sequence of frequent flier flights passing through Germany and South Africa) we are happy to be on the ground in Africa! Here it seems we have entered an antimatter world where just about everything seems to be the opposite of our experience in Iceland.

From the peak of summer, suddenly it is winter now (although the days are hot and sunny and the nights near freezing.) Instead of short nighttime skies that never quite get dark enough to see even a single star, the long African night is sprinkled with endless stars and the Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon. And many of the familiar northern constellations are nowhere to be seen, replaced by some strange star patterns to our south in the evening sky. Where Iceland gives us the endless-day energy boost, allowing us to hike for 9 hours and then stay up late talking with friends, Southern Africa lulls us into 10 hours of sleep, going to bed hours after sunset and still managing to be up to watch the sunrise each morning.

Etosha pan

Instead of water water everywhere, Namibia is extra dry. A powdery white dusty world where we and all the other animals are drawn inexorably to the remaining water sources.  Not the north Atlantic, but the south Atlantic graces the desert shores, where instead of a carpet of green, hundreds of miles of sand dunes stretch from the dry but foggy coast towards the parched Kalahari.

We drive on the left side of the road, feeling a bit off balance as we careen clockwise around the many roundabouts.

The economics are different as well. We have left the world of hyper expensive ($260 for a pair of hiking pants!?) to the more reasonable world of affordability (amazingly fresh and tasty seafood dinner for two with a very respectable bottle of South African wine for $25.) Instead of a seemingly even society of have and have-mores, Africa appears to be more like the USA with those that got (a lot!) and those that have nothing at all. Poverty is visible on the outskirts of every town with rows of tin-roofed shacks and dirt-poor families eking out a living.

But like Iceland, everyone we meet in Namibia is friendly and welcoming. We splash out with the rental of a Toyota Corolla, stock up on a couple boxes of groceries from the local 'Pick and Pay' in Windhoek, and set out on what we hope will be an epic car-camping road-trip. First north to see the animals in Waterberg and Etosha National Parks, then south through the red sands of the Namib desert and on down the B1 and N7 all the way to Cape Town, South Africa.

We sleep in our trusty 'ground tent' but most of our fellow safariites have big 4x4's with 'roof tents' accessed by folding ladders, or come en masse in giant safari trucks and sleep in large clusters of sturdy dome tents.



It's hot, 29 degrees C, a dry wind is blowing.  The sky is blue, no clouds in sight.  August is always hot and dry in northern Namibia, but this has been an exceptionally low rainfall year, the land is parched, black woody vegetation dots the landscape, the wildlife is desperate for water.  Etosha's waterholes, some man-made, others natural, are essential for survival in the unremitting heat, all are magnets for wildlife.

We bump along the park's gravel roads in 'Silversbok', our tiny Toyota Corolla sedan, while giant 4x4's filled with khaki-clothed tourists whiz by us, kicking up clouds of pale buff dust that linger in the air, coating our car, irritating our eyes.  Each day our destination is one of the park's 34 waterholes, where we wait and watch from the safety of the car -- no one is allowed to leave their vehicles except at a few (too few!) toilets, many kilometers apart.

At Homob Waterhole, near the dry, salty white Etosha Pan, a male lion and his mate slowly stroll by, then lie down in the dark shade of a gnarled acacia tree, while masses of springbok stand frozen at the periphery, waiting for a safe moment to drink.  A herd of more than fifty zebra move in from my left. All are keenly aware of the lions, all are skittish and irritated.  Zebras enter the water in groups of seven or eight, drink cautiously, then suddenly freak out and charge out of the water, nipping and kicking each other. Four kudu -- they look like a cross between a camel and a deer -- enter the waterhole, shielded from the lions' view by a small island of green vegetation. They drink for a moment, then prance away, returning to their original spot.  A solitary gemsbok, muscular and confident with his long, elegant horns, waits an hour  before finally approaching the water's edge.  He takes a long drink, constantly checking the lions, then slowly moves away.  Meantime, the lions are relaxed, oblivious to the nervous masses, enjoying their snooze in the shade.  The male casually rolls onto his back, forearms curled up in the air, his paws limp and dangling.  
We've been here almost four hours. It's noon and all the big safari trucks have moved on, so no more murmur of foreign languages. We hear mostly German, some Dutch, a sprinkling of French and Italian - there are very few Americans. A diesel engine growls and 'Africar' departs, only the diehards remain: Mark, me, the sleeping lions, a few Egyptian geese, fat and happy, floating in the pond, and a crowd of wary springbok on the distant rise -- none have been brave enough to approach and drink.


Next day. At Nebrowni Waterhole trails to and from the pond stretch out to the horizon, like spokes on a wheel.

1:00 pm: 23 ostrich, 2 giraffe, 50+ springbok.

1:15 pm: 12 ostrich, 30 blue wildebeest, a few springbok.

1:20 pm: A young elephant, healthy and frisky, has arrived -- everyone else clears out of the water. He is stirring the pond with his giant forefoot, making a white mud slurry. He sucks it up in his trunk then sprays it over his back, flapping his ears to cool off a bit.

1:35 pm: The gray elephant is now almost entirely white, a nice coating of sunscreen against the relentless sun. 'Butoh' saunters off, pausing at a dust pan to spray powder all over himself, then treks off into the distance, soon just a blur in the heat waves on the horizon.

1:40 pm: 7 gemsbok, 1 blue wildebeest, 11 zebras, 2 kori bustards.

Elephant Encounter! We often see long lines of elephants, herds of males, females, adolescents and a few tiny babies, hidden between the legs of their aunties. They cross the gravel roads, seeking food on the parched plains and in thorny acacia forests. One afternoon we are see four enormous bull elephants silhouetted on the horizon, they are slowly and deliberately walking towards us, across the plains to Charisaub waterhole. This is the classic African scene of my dreams. One independent fellow -- I call him 'Bjartur' -- is surly and uncooperative. When they arrive at the shallow waterhole he soaks his tired feet, sprays himself with mud and water. Desperate to cool off, he lies down and rolls in the muck. He is an old fellow, with one tusk broken, the other missing. He chews on the thorny bushes but no doubt is craving fresh juicy greens. The other three satisfy themselves with dust baths and walk on, but Bjartur refuses to leave -- he is not happy.

Eventually the four wander off, but Bjartur is irritated and trails far behind. Finally, the others relent to his wishes, reverse course and start back to the waterhole. Just as the four big bruisers cross the road where we and a few others are watching from our cars, an idiotic tourist zips by in his 4x4, way too fast, much too close. We sit frozen, unwilling to move forward or backward, our car directly in the path of the four big bulls. Bjartur is pissed. He shakes his head, rears up a bit, then crosses the road, followed by a younger, healthier male. Suddenly he turns back and charges the younger bull. We cower in the car, our hearts pounding as these two behemoths nearly back into our car; we are just a small speck, easily squished beneath their huge feet. We survive without a scratch, but it takes a very long time for the adrenaline coursing through our veins to subside.

Scary! As the sun's rays peak over the rocky horizon at Waterberg Plateau, a dozen baboons are racing into our campsite. In pairs and trios, they leap up onto picnic tables and scramble into camper vans, grabbing any food not safely locked away. I see a pair galloping towards me, and just in the nick of time, slam closed Silversbok's trunk, where all our food is stored. Thwarted, but never slowing their pace, the two big males veer off towards an unwary camper and their snatch-and-run technique succeeds. Later that morning, Mark follows one fellow as he casually and very methodically searches each lidless garbage can, jumping inside to rummage for food. Weirdly, the park makes absolutely no effort to contain garbage or educate campers and, with the prolonged drought Namibia is experiencing, camper food is proving to be the baboons' best food source.

Jackals are the pest at Okaukuejo Rest Camp in Etosha. They circle us as we eat, unafraid of shouts or waved fists -- even at the semi-posh, park-run restaurant. Signs warn that they carry rabies and ask campers to report any jackals who are acting strangely. Oh great!
As darkness falls at Halali Rest Camp, also in Etosha, a duo of acrobatic Honey Badgers -- devilish, ferocious, fearless animals -- come tumbling into our camp, their lithe young bodies incredibly supple and sleek. We have no idea what they are, as we watch them play under our car, chasing each other. Suddenly they duck under the fly of our tent and before we can do anything to stop them, they've ripped the fly (thankfully, it's only a small tear.) They are confused by our bright headlamps and scamper off to another site, where they find bags of food and a carton of milk left unattended. They snarl and snap, devouring every scrap of food. Lucky for us, these are young ones, only three feet long, and are (mostly) just playing; adult Honey Badgers kill and eat cobras, terrorize poultry farmers, and carry rabies. Yikes!

















Okaukuejo high school choir!




Mark's favorite -- the rock dassie!